And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. THEN HE SAID to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:22-23)
Cross-bearing is a powerful ancient image. Rejection stood at the center of that image, as well as accountability to the state. The cross-bearer had committed a severe crime and needed elimination. Criminals bore their own crosses as they journeyed to their death. Thus for a Christian to bear a cross is to be prepared to face rejection and death, even as one remains accountable to God for the path one walks. It means that one has died to the world, separated from its values and lifestyle.
These texts are hard for us to reflect on today, because cross-bearing in the ancient sense of walking to one’s death rarely happens for most Christians today. Discipleship does not come with the almost automatic sense of cost it carried then. A decision for Jesus does not bring automatic rejection today. If anything, we suffer from an opposite issue. It is possible to operate in such a closed Christian circle that one lacks all contact with the outside world and thus misses the rejection of the world that this passage assumes will be present. One can experience a type of institutionalized Christianity that assumes one is born a believer or that stays so cloistered to protect one’s moral identity that one never really engages those in the world. Such a Christianity will never face the discipleship tensions Jesus describes here. But such a protected kind of discipleship is not what Jesus asks his followers to undertake when he calls them to bear their cross daily. Jesus assumes those who are his will indeed represent him in the world. He also knows the world will react. Yet even those who do undertake his mission faithfully today often do not face persecution that early Christians endured.
But to note that faith today often does not involve persecution does not mean that discipleship is without cost or ceases to exist. The world is just as potent and powerfully present today as it was then. The call for us to walk differently from the walk of the world is just as essential an attribute of discipleship today as it was then. A walk of integrity, purity, faithfulness, and humble service should be just as evident today as it was in Jesus’ day. If we are too comfortable in the world and if no one can tell our lives are different, it may be because we have not taken the full journey of discipleship Christ calls us to take. That does not mean that we should blow a trumpet to draw attention to our different way of living. It should emerge naturally, like lights shining in darkness.
Our walk with God is not something that takes place on “automatic pilot.” For many, Christianity is merely a guaranteed ticket to heaven. But Jesus never envisioned the faith as a “one-stop” experience. This section on following Jesus makes clear just how demanding discipleship is. It requires a whole new way of thinking and of orienting oneself to life. The path of following Jesus requires spiritual labor, the bearing of a cross daily. Jesus underscores the fact that to carry a cross one must deny the self. Agendas change when one comes after Jesus, since he has already marked out the path.
Denying oneself means different things in different contexts. To a parent, it means not just seeking one’s own desires, but serving the child in their best interests in terms of the investment of time and energy. To a spouse, it means not just asking what can be done for you, but considering how one can be of help to his or her partner. To a neighbor, it means considering how one can be of service and show concern in the affairs of life. To a colleague at work, it may mean not seeing how you can advance the responsibilities you have to undertake, but how you can be of service to them. Most importantly to God, it means seeking his will and spending time before him so he can lead and guide you in the way you should go. Discipleship means being a learner, a follower. It means that our attention is turned to how we can follow Jesus, not how we can make him follow us.
This means that we are seeking his kingdom, not our own. Materialism and the pursuit of power, independence, and security are probably the biggest obstacles to spiritual advancement. Everything in our culture from commercials to our education pushes us in the direction of advancing our standing of living for more comfort. To pick up a cross means walking against the grain of cultural values, so that our own expectations and needs take a back seat to God’s call. Some things we may have seen as ours by natural right may need to be renounced because they represent a subtle form of idolatry. The Spirit guides us into seeing things differently than we did before. Bearing a cross may mean leaving behind dreams created for us long ago by a citizenship we have now left behind.
So discipleship requires a renewal of the mind and a commitment of the heart to that renewal. It will mean intense involvement with God’s Word and with other believers who are dedicated to growing in their faith. A disciple is never stagnant and never has the spiritual life in a mode where God cannot challenge him or her to a deeper walk. As Jesus has noted, it is an offering of the self in service to the Son of Man.
So my question again is: are you suffering? Are you being discipled by God?
Bock, Darrell L. “Bridging Contexts” and “Contemporary Significance” In NIV Application Commentary, New Testament: Luke. By Darrell L. Bock, 267-268. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1996.